Posted by: travelrat | September 15, 2008

A Date with a Date

Desert Safari, Day 2

Tozeur, 13th June 2008

We headed back to Tozeur, and found our bus among several others, waiting by the side of the road. The previous night, the driver had said to ensure we got on the correct bus, No. 198. And, to make sure, he repeated the number in German and French; hundert acht und neunzig and cent quatre vingt dix-huit. The German I could live with, but couldn’t decide whether ‘four score and eighteen’ was quaint and old-fashioned, or just awkward.

 The bus only took us a little way; we transferred to calechès to ride into the oasis, which is really more of a fruit farm. The calèches were the same as yesterday, except they were four-seaters, instead of two. And, we didn’t have to dress like we were auditioning for the chorus of The Desert Song.

We’d been to an oasis before, in Morocco. That, though, was owned by one man, and it was difficult to see where the garden ended and the orchard began, and where the orchard ended and the farm began. This was different, it was really a fully-fledged fruit orchard, and we drove past trees bearing figs, bananas, peaches … and dates.

Most European people first heard of Tunisia when they bought a box of dates, usually as a treat at Christmas. Those date boxes are also the means by which many people learn their first words of Arabic. The words deglet nour, which appear on many boxes, mean, literally ‘the finger of light’ are used to indicate dates of the highest quality … those of the lowest quality are not fit for human consumption, and are used for animal feed.

But, imported dates in boxes do not taste like those fresh from date palm trees. When the dates are packaged, they are injected with sugar in order to preserve them. Therefore, they are brown, and sweeter and stickier than fresh ones, which are usually a yellowish green.

Unlike many other trees, which have male and female flowers on the same tree, there are separate male and female date palms. Normally, they are pollinated by wind, which blows the pollen from the male plant on to the female plant, so that it will, eventually, produce fruit.

Where dates are grown commercially, they are usually pollinated by hand, First, every Spring, a worker will climb a male tree. This is a fairly easy operation for, although the trees are usually six to eight metres tall, when the leaves, or fronds fall, or are cut away, a convenient ‘step’ is provided.

The worker will cut away the male, pollen-producing part of the plant, which he will place in a special container. He then descends from the tree by the simple method of sliding down a tough lower frond.

He climbs the female tree in the same way, carrying the male part of the flower. Unlike the male, the female has several parts to catch the blowing pollen, and the worker will make a bundle of these, into which he will place the male part, tying everything up with a string made from the fibre of the palm frond, which will, eventually, rot and break.

The tree will be climbed again in September, to harvest the dates. A typical tree will produce around 80 kg of dates if it is hand-pollinated; that is four times as much as it would if Nature was left to take its course.





  1. ‘The finger of light’ – I like that. I had no idea about the hand pollination process. I learn so much from your blog.

  2. I’ve seen it done with orchids. She used a very fine paint brush and a little ‘puffer’ kind of thing.

    I’m glad I’m not a palm tree, though. I can’t tell you how much it hurt even thinking about ‘having the male part cut away’. 🙂

    But, presumably, it grows again next year?

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